Better than expected
I had never heard of Mizuki Nomura or the “Book Girl” series before picking this up, and to be honest my expectations were low. I don’t have a lot of experience with the Japanese light novel genre, but what I have read so far has been dreadful. But I like Japanese ghosts, and I like yokai, and I like books, so “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit” seemed like something I might enjoy.
This is the second in the Mizuki’s “Book Girl” series, and there are eight in total along with some random short stories and sundry. From what I have read, Mizuki picks a work of classic literature to structure the story of the “Book Girl” light novels around. For “Famished Spirit” that book is Emily Bronte’s moody classic Wuthering Heights. There is also quite a bit of George MacDonald’s The Day Boy and the Night Girl woven in as well. If you haven’t read those books, you are at a distinct disadvantage story-wise, but you can still muddle through.
The story is part Scooby-Doo mystery, part literary exploration, and part teenage love drama. The titular Book Girl is Tohko Amano, a type of yokai (translated in this book as “goblin.” Points off right there for lazy and inaccurate translations) who doesn’t eat food but subsists exclusively on eating books. Real books, paper and all. Tohko is friends with the student Konoha Inoue, and they make up the only two members of the schools Book Club. Mystery falls in their lap one day when strange, coded messages start showing up in their book club mailbox, and a mysterious ghostly figure roams the school halls. In the best tradition of YA adventures, Tohko and Konoha are drug into the mystery, long-buried secrets are uncovered, and only an encyclopedia-like knowledge of Wuthering Heights will win the day.
Without the background of the first book I was a little lost in the beginning of “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit”; there are several plot threads that I don’t know if they are continued over from the first book Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime or not. For example Konoha Inoue is secretly the author of a best-selling book that he wrote under a pen name. So is Konoha rich? Famous? And what about Tohko. Is this a world where the existence of yokai is known and accepted? Or does she hide her true nature?Or are these questions we just aren’t supposed to look into too deeply?
But even without that background, I was impressed with “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit.” It was interesting that in the back, in the Afterward, Mizuki talked about changing the story halfway through, and it shows. The first half is just light fluff, exactly the kind of thing I have found in Japanese light novels. Then out of nowhere the story plunges into depth and darkness, becoming far more serious than I had imagined. Severe child abuse. The isolation of adoption into an unloving family. Exploration of identity. There is some intense psychological horror going on in the story.
Unfortunately, Mizuki didn’t go back and re-write the first half to fit better with the second, so you end up with a disjointed reading experience. Mizuki is clearly a more powerful writer than is let on, and I am interested to see how the “Book Girl” series progresses. Does it become lighter, like the first half, or heavier and darker like the second? I suppose there is only one way to find out!